13
Feb
2014

Indian Summer: Week One Report

I wanted to check in and reflect on the first week of sales for my new novel, Indian Summer. I posted a Day One report, and it was amazing how many people found it informative, useful and even encouraging. In the spirit of transparency, here is my (humble and meager) sales report for the first seven days:

  • Kindle: 34  ($94.86)
  • Nook: 2  ($5.18)
  • Google Play: 1  (my test purchase)
  • Paperback: 3  ($12.21)
  • Kobo (added four days after launch): 1  (my test purchase)
  • iBookstore (finally went live five days after launch): 6  ($16.75)

That’s a grand total of $129, which is an increase of $71 from the $58 that I earned on Day One. I can say, though, that the increase was heavily weighted to a combination of Day Two sales and the book’s arrival (FINALLY) on the iBookstore. Self-publishing has a long tail, as they say, but at this stage I think the tail for this book is going to look like a piece of fishing line attached to a golf ball (big bump at the beginning, barley noticeable after that).

One note: some people might wonder how the royalty thing works. The short answer is that it depends on the store. Amazon’s KDP program offers 70% royalties on anything priced between $2.99-9.99. Apple is similar at 70%, but that’s on any price. Barnes & Noble’s Nook store offers 65%, and the Kobo store is 70%. Google Play is a tricky beast, and I can only say I earn roughly 65%. Paperback is also complex, the royalty amount depending on whether the book is bought through the Amazon store (less) or through my personal CreateSpace store (more). See? Not simple.

I’ll check-in three weeks from now for a Month One report. If I had to predict, though, I would be shocked if sales were more than 10% greater than they are right now. It’s not an attempt to be pessimistic, rather it’s part of my plan to minimize the risk of disappointment. Disappointment inhibits my ability to write new material, and the best way to grow my daily sales number is to put out more books.

7
Feb
2014

Launch Day Results

I released a new novel yesterday, and I thought I would share how the process went and what my numbers looked like. The voyeuristic nature in many people might find this bit of the self-publishing adventure especially enlightening. First, let’s start with what I did to prep for launch.

Launch Support
One of the most common notions I read about in the weeks leading up to release day was that it was essential to put an email signup link in the back of my books. Readers who finish the book and love it will very likely want to sign up for more books from the same author. So, in preparation for this book release, I started to promote my mailing list. As of yesterday morning, I had 64 subscribers.

I also went into launch day with 1,166 twitter followers. I usually apply the 10% Rule to that figure, though, meaning I can reasonably expect about 116 followers to interact with my book promotion (click the link, maybe retweet me, and a few purchases. I don’t read every single tweet in my twitter stream, and it would be wrong to expect others to behave differently.

I use the Alpha network on App.net (most people just call it ADN) and have about 975 followers there. Same rules apply, though, so I really only expected about 97 people to notice my post.

Lastly, my blog has around 1,500 RSS subscribers. That told me to expect about 150 visits to the site when I posted my launch announcement. Again, that’s pessimistic, but I like to set my expectations low, rather than walk face-first into the brick wall that is disappointment.

A Word About Sales Ranks
Your book sales on Amazon, in relation to the sales of every other book on Amazon during that hour, result in a sales rank. The more sales you receive, the higher your rank becomes (a lower number). But Amazon also has another trick up its sleeve: books fall back down the sales charts just as fast as they climb them. A 3-hour burst in sales, followed by nothing will result in a very fast drop back down the rankings.

Why are rankings important? Because higher-ranks books appear on more lists that shoppers use to look for new books. Depending on your category/genre, that might mean landing on the first page of results for something like the “Bestsellers in U.S. Horror Fiction”, or never coming close to the Top 100. The larger the category, the harder it is to crack the Top 100 within it. The more visible my book can be, the more “organic” sales I’ll experience.

Reviews
Having a good number of reviews helps convince potential buyers that the book is worth their sack of gold coins. What most self-published writers do is launch their book, cross their fingers, and wait for the reviews to roll in. That rarely happens. To help a book succeed on launch day, it’s important to have some reviews waiting to influence those first-time shoppers.

To that end, I handed out about 15 “advanced review copies” (ARC) of my book about 10 days before launch. About half of those ARC readers finished the book on time and wrote reviews, and when the store pages went live a day or two ahead of launch, I sent them the links and they posted their reviews. Their reviews are honest and uninfluenced by me, but just having them on the Amazon page for the book is super helpful.

Cost to Produce
Lastly, let’s touch briefly on the cost for me to produce this book. I typed an average of 1,000 words per hour, and the book is about 58,000 words long. So, you can assume a minimum of 60 hours to write it, which was spread out over the course of about two months. There was also editing time on my end, which was another 20 hours. Let’s assume a super-low rate of $25/hour, and the book is already at $2,000 in my time (but I don’t charge $25/hr for my design time..it’s much, much higher).

Outside editing would have been around $500, but I managed to trade design skills with an editor, saving me that expense. And a normal self-publisher would have had to buy a pre-made cover for $100, or commission an original cover for $400-$700. Being a professional designer, though, I was able to handle that role myself, again saving me a large chunk of change.

All told, had I paid an editor and bought a professional cover, I could have been $600-$1200 in the hole before selling a single copy, never mind the huge amount of my time that it took. That’s a hard pill to swallow, which is why many self-published books have crappy covers and piss-poor editing. I like to think that the extra quality in my book will help it float up the charts over time.

Launch Day Figures
I sent out my email announcement at 9am yesterday, February 6. I had hoped to wait until 11am to tweet about it in order to give West Coast people a chance to wake up and start their work days, but a few of my newsletter readers were too excited to contain it, and shared the news on twitter. So, I pushed everything out by about 9:30am. And “everything” means the blog post, the promotional tweet, and the post to the Alpha network on App.net.

Across Twitter and ADN, I received a total of 22 retweets, 9 original mentions and 14 congratulatory replies. That’s 45, across two social networks with a total follower count of over 2100.

My email announcement to 64 subscribers was opened by 45 people (so, 70%) and had a 23% click-rate. Better than 10%, I guess.

Lastly, my blog post received 214 views (out of a potential of 1,500, remember), and 71 of those visits came from Twitter (meaning, not from my 1,500 subscriber base). So, close to 150 non-Twitter visits is a good 10% of my 1,500 RSS figure. Not bad.

And how did that translate into sales? See for yourself:

  • Amazon = 17 copies (a total of $47.43)
  • Nook = 1 copy (a total of $2.59)
  • Paperback = 2 copies ( a total of $8.14)
  • Google Play = nada, zip, zero, nothing

So, after all that work and prep, I earned $58 yesterday. Sound enticing? And at the end of the night, after 12 hours on sale, my book was around #10,000 on the full Paid book list (out of a couple million titles, mind you) and #28 on the Top 100 Thriller/Paranormal bestseller list. For some reason I decided in the middle of the day to switch to the Horror category, and I now hold the #59 spot there as of this morning.

Caveats
Here’s the deal with digital publishing: it’s forever. My book might be on that digital Amazon shelf for 20 years. Who knows. And while launch day sales are typically the biggest day of sales most authors experience, many books grow over time. Great reviews, a bit of random discovery and some promotions might help it grow beyond its current rank.

The best marketing, though, is to write more books. So I’m happy to say I’m already about 2,500 words into my next novel, another modern-day supernatural thriller. I hope to have it completed and available by May.

Lastly, if the stats from my website and email announcement yesterday have any other nuggets to share, it’s this: about 60% of my viewers wanted the Kindle version, but a little under 40% wanted the iBooks version. Sadly, though, Apple still has yet to approve the book for their store. I submitted it 48 hours before my intended launch date, and here we are 24 past that and the book is still “In Review”. In the future, I will most likely submit to iBooks a week or more before launch, and just not mention it until launch day. Then again, this could take days or weeks, so I have to weigh the cost and benefits of making it available there at all.

If you bought my new book, thanks for making yesterday such a fun ride. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to buy it in the next 24 hours. That can help extend my time on the right charts. And for everyone, any promotion you can do, or reviews you can post, will be incredibly helpful. Who knows—I just might manage to make an additional $20 today!

6
Feb
2014

Announcing Indian Summer

I’m very excited to announce that my new novel, Indian Summer, is finally available. The advance reviews have already been humbling to read:

This book had me hooked from the first page of chapter 1. I couldn’t put it down. It was the perfect pace and the perfect length.” — Bradley Chambers

I haven’t been this enthralled by a novel in a while. People are going to be happy and scared all at the same time.” — Cody Keisler

It’s one of those books that I devoured, reading as fast as I could so that I could find out what happens next, only to slow down when I neared the end, absorbing every word remaining.” —Matt Birchler

The writing and plot is very original. The characters feel very real, close and personal. I didn’t expect the author to have so much darkness inside to produce such an appealing thriller.” — David Mendels

A great book to take on a holiday, or curl up on the sofa with.” — Dan

I couldn’t put it down and really enjoyed the suspense in the story. There were several times I found my heart racing as I was reading through a scene.” — Jeffrey Abbott

Don’t take their word for it. Pick up a copy today and get started. I have a feeling you’ll be glad you did.

Kindle Store    Nook Store    iBookstore    Google Play    Kobo    Paperback

1
Feb
2014

Cover Reveal for Indian Summer

indiansummer

The release date for my upcoming novel, Indian Summer, is fast approaching. In the spirit of sharing, I thought I would give everyone a preview of the cover and the book description. Consider this a chance to whet your whistle.

The guilt of our childhood can haunt us for decades.

 

Twenty years ago, a childhood tragedy drove six friends apart. But when one of them is found dead in the historic, wooded ruins of the New England settlement known as Dogtown, old acquaintances find themselves drawn together.

 

Now they must work together to solve the meaning behind a message written in blood, a series of attacks, and the mysterious quills that seem to tie them all together. But time is quickly running out.

 

Indian Summer is a chilling tale of six childhood friends and the things that haunt them—both natural and otherworldly.

Early reviews of the book are blowing away my expectations, and I’m really excited to share this new story with you. Look for it to arrive on the Kindle, Nook and iBookstore on Thursday, February 6. And if you want to get a reminder in the mail, be sure you’re signed up for my email newsletter.

22
Jan
2014

Good-bye

My maternal grandmother, Jean, passed away about an hour ago.

She was a strong woman. After raising five daughters and helping my grandfather build his own successful business, she became a widow at the young age of fifty. When my grandfather passed away, she sold his business and took a job at the city library, where she worked for decades. It was through her that books came into my life, from the piles that I regularly checked out, to the used sets of encyclopedias that she gave to us.

She wasn’t a very affectionate woman, mind you. An relative once told me that Grandma Jean didn’t have a sentimental bone in her body, and it was true as far as I could tell. Where my paternal grandmother clipped every obituary for anyone remotely related to her, and offered hugs and laughter and comfort, Grandma Jean was stern, particular and more interested in quiet and cleanliness. She was intelligent and educated and proper and knowledgable. If my paternal grandmother was a feeler, Grandma Jean was a thinker.

When I was about ten years old, Grandma Jean bought a blank journal. It had a faux denim cover, complete with a pocket and stitching, and she began to write short stories inside it for my younger brother and I. She only composed two, but they take up twenty-two hand-written pages, about a tenth of the full journal, leaving the rest of it blank. I like to think that she wanted us to add our own stories to the book, though that is something neither of us ever did.

The first story is about a squirrel. Sammy, she called him. It was the sort of story you write for two boys, then six and ten, to teach a moral lesson while also entertaining them. I still have that journal, nearly 30 years later. In fact, I pulled it out last night to thumb through it once more. Sammy the Squirrel is still there, waiting for me to read about him any time I want. Sammy the Squirrel, a product of my grandmother’s imagination.

Shortly after she gave me the book, I entered the fifth grade. There, one of my teachers assigned us the task of writing our own short stories. I’ve dug through the dozen or so boxes of childhood possessions that I have here in my home, but I have yet to find them. I know they still exist, most likely in my parent’s basement, and desperately want to find them. They are awful, childish, wonderful stories, and when I wrote them, I felt that I was walking in Grandma Jean’s footsteps. I was writing.

I remember, sometime during that same school year, climbing into our big brown conversion van (the kind with the mini blinds and a round table in front of the couch that folded into a bed) with my mom to drive an hour south to the nearest mall. It was her and I, my mom’s friend and her daughter, a girl from my grade. I can still see that moment clearly if I close my eyes: I sat next to Cindy, a spiral notebook and pencil on my lap. I remember telling her that I was going to be a writer some day. I remember that she was impressed.

Writing became a part of my life from that moment on. I wrote short stories through middle school, and created comic books in high school. I even wrote poetry in college. I fell in love with telling stories, and writing them down was—at least for me—the only reason why written language had been invented. I wanted to write, whatever the style, and I did it as often as I could.

In the last decade or so, Grandma Jean began to forget things. Alzheimer’s slowly crept into her mind and stole bits and pieces from her. It eventually led to her needing to sell her home and move into an assisted living facility, and eventually to a private residence where she received constant, 24/7 care.

Before she sold her home, though, Grandma Jean began to have episodes of confusion. The one that occurred the most often was a hallucination about, of all things, a squirrel. She would see it every now and then outside the window in the backyard. And sometimes, ever more frequent as her illness progressed, she would see it inside her house.

Though she never gave this particular squirrel a name, I like to think that it was Sammy. Sammy, the hero of the first story she ever wrote for me. Sammy, the creature that showed me it was natural and good to create characters of my own. Sammy the Squirrel, a product of my grandmother’s imagination.

These days, every time I finish writing a book, I think of that day in the van. I think of Cindy and my notebook. I think of my short story assignment and the tale I wrote about the pumpkins with bones in them (they had been grown in an old, forgotten cemetery, naturally). But most of all I think of Grandma Jean, the woman who taught me about books and inspired me to write my own.

Good-bye, Grandma Jean. I’ll miss your stories. I’ll miss your strength. But most of all, I’ll miss you.

18
Jan
2014

Self-Publishing 101 Resources

More and more writers are turning to self-publishing as a way to get their creative projects into the marketplace. Say what you want about self-publishing, if your book project is done right and held to the same standards as traditionally published work, there’s an enormous amount of potential available to you.

Of course, writing your book is the first step. After that, though, you move into the business of publishing. And it’s not as simple as slapping together a cover in PowerPoint and uploading the files to Amazon. Nope. There are details within details to learn about and put to work. I’ve been doing this for a long while, and even I have things to learn.

To help myself accelerate my development as a self-published author, I have been soaking up the lessons of others. Specifically, there are four great books available that teach a lot of what you need to know about the entire process of self-publishing:

Write. Publish. Repeat.

This book is my top recommendation. If you don’t buy anything else, be sure to grab this one. It covers the basics such as the writing process and the methodology behind writing many books, very fast, to fill your virtual book shelf. But it also covers software tools, where to sell your books, cover design, editing, reviews and mailing lists. I can’t say it loud enough; if you want to have the best chance at success in the self-publishing world, you need to buy and read this book.

Get Digital & Get Visible

This pair of books from David Gaughran work as a series that helps readers understand the value of digital self-publishing and how to make sure they are as visible as possible. Get Digital is a great read if you are on the fence. It covers the basics for people who need to learn why they should self-pub, and how to go about doing it. It’s a bit dated (tech moves fast these days), but I’d say it’s still about 80% on-target and helpful.

Get Visible is about the “game” of best-seller lists, sales rankings and free-book give-aways. It’s much more of a business and marketing book, but after you’ve written your book, nothing will happen with it unless you get serious about selling it. So, read this one as a guidebook to marketing your ebook as well as you can.

Your First 1,000 Copies

This is a very specific book that covers the answer to everyone’s question: how can I sell the first thousand copies of my book? It’s a marketing book through and through, but it’s an eye-opener if you missed some important details from Write. Publish. Repeat. and Get Visible. Mainly, this book is about creating and growing an email list for past and future book customers, and then putting that machine to work for you. You aren’t going to learn about ebook formatting here, but you will learn about auto-responders, sidebar widgets, pop-ups and call-to-actions in your back-matter. If that’s all ancient Hebrew to you, then you need to read Your First 1,000 Copies.

Last note: if you’re at all interested in my writing process, and occasionally learning about new released from me, you should sign up for my twice-monthly email newsletter here.

13
Jan
2014

The New Book Is Done…Almost!

I wrapped up the final portion of the first draft of my new novel this past Friday afternoon. What a relief!

Of course, the work isn’t done yet. I made a huge mistake with my first two novels by only putting them in front of just two proofreading “beta readers”, making  the corrections and then publishing. I was younger, much less experienced and very, very eager to get my books out and available. Lesson learned.

This time, the entire book gets a second pass from me, word by word. I’ll re-write about 25% of the text, judging by the editing that I’ve managed to complete on the first two chapters. It’s tedious, and not my favorite thing to do. But I can already tell that the book is becoming so much better by doing this.

After this phase, the book will go in for “real” editing, and then the beta readers will take a pass at it. But I’m still hopeful for a late February launch. Remember: if you’d like to know when it’s available, be sure to sign up for my mailing list. I have a feeling you won’t want to miss this one.

6
Jan
2014

Should You Plot Your Novel, or Pants It?

Here’s a great post from by pal Harry Marks, discussing the difference between writing a novel by the seat of your pants and plotting it out in-detail before beginning.

Both methods have created amazing results. For example, Marks mentions how J.K. Rowling planned all of her Harry Potter books ahead of time, grids and all (see an example here). On the other side of the table, J.R.R. Tolkien was fond of letting the story and characters in his masterpiece guide their own destiny. The point, here, is that neither method is superior.

How do I do it? I tend to be a bit of an obsessive-compulsive planner. I blame things like timelines and cohesiveness, but I also like to see the ideas grow from a seed. When I write a novel, I follow this simple (in theory, of course) process:

  1. Write a 1-sentence summary of the story I want to write.
  2. Expand that sentence into two. Then a paragraph.
  3. Then each paragraph gets broken into individual sentences, which I massage into paragraphs of their own.
  4. I do this until each paragraph holds the plot summary for each chapter.
  5. Those chapter summaries get pasted into Scrivener (each goes on it’s respective chapter document) and guides my writing as I do.

A couple of benefits that this method provides for me:

  • • Nothing is set in stone. If the story dictates a change, I make the change. I actually think I can stay more flexible, not less, because I have a plan to deviate away from, rather than
  • • The long summary document is perfect for keeping at-hand. For this, like Marks, I tend to have an “active book” note in Evernote that I make corrections and additions to as I write. It syncs across all my devices, so I’ve always got the most up-to-date plot at my fingertips.
  • • It helps me know how long of a race I’m running. When you go for a road trip, it’s nice to know how far you are going to have to drive. It influences how you pack and how much fuel you buy. Knowing ahead of time how many chapters my book is going to have, and knowing how many words per chapter my writing style tends to fall on (me: 3,500-4,000 typically), allows me to guess at a word-length for my books. If I have 20 chapters, my book is going to be around 70,000 words long. Knowing this helps me pace myself and stay focused on finishing the book. Most would-be writers never even finish their books, so I’ll take whatever help I can get!

Personally, I think every novel should be thought through before writing begins. I understand the desire for flexibility, and inspiration does have its place, but no story is a good story without a good ending. To know of the story is worth writing, I think an author should have a full grasp of how the story might end. Will foggy details become more clear as you write more and more of the book? Sure. But your readers want a cohesive story that makes sense and leads them somewhere, and that’s where planning comes in.

13
Nov
2013

Here’s What I Think

The internet, and more specifically the world of social media, is akin to a vast room filled with people, all of whom are jumping up and down, waving their arms and shouting “Look at me! Look at what I did!”. You are one of those people. So am I.

It’s not a flaw to desire attention. I’m not judging anyone for it. I think it’s safe to say that the need for community and acceptance is rooted so deeply in the human blueprint that it’s practically a genetic trait. Community and attention aren’t the problem. Expectations are.

I have accomplished things that I’m very proud of – a pride made all the more powerful when those achievements are viewed in comparison to the plethora of failures and mistakes I’ve given birth to – and I love sharing them with people. I love sharing them so much that I get upset, feel hurt, and take it personally when it seems that no one is listening or interested. It can be isolating and tough to swallow when it appears as though nobody cares about the things I have done.

As I said, this desire to share accomplishments, and the deeper desire for attention, is not a flaw in itself. The flaw, rather, is found in our expectations. We expect people to care. All the people, all the time, upon each and every announcement. We expect it so confidently that we can be crushed when we receive muted, realistic reactions from those around us.

Here is the key, though: the other people aren’t failing me; my expectations are.

Now, knowing the truth doesn’t always make reality easier to deal with. I’m not claiming anything close to the notion that I’ve got it all figured out. I still feel abandoned and hurt when I mention a product or event and get little-to-no response. I still take it deeply personal when people I once called friends “unfollow” me or stop talking to me. I’m only human, and I certainly don’t have it figured out.

But does that make me too emotionally fragile? Do I just need to man-up, grow a pair and get on with life? Should I work through my obvious struggles with self-esteem and confidence and find a better way to process reality?

Probably. It’s not healthy to take everything personally. I’m not supposed to act like a baby. But, I’m also not interested in acting like an unfeeling, emotionless robot.

Most people aren’t paying attention to you. That’s both good and bad. It means that your failures are much less public than you think, and your successes fall on far fewer ears than you’d like. Most people are just too busy to care; busy working, busy with family, or busy jumping up and down beside you waving their arms and shouting for attention. Attention that you think you deserve as well.

So at the end of the day, what I really feel like doing is just giving up on trying to stand out in the crowd. There are nice people with me in this enormous room, and I like seeing what they’ve made or done. But sometimes…just sometimes…I want to leave. There are too many heads bobbing up and down in this sea of people, and not enough attention to go around.

In the grand scheme of things, my website or product or book or whatever is just too insignificant to matter to the masses. I’m not ok with that (yet), but I know I should be. I’ll work on that. I promise.

I can’t change you or any of the others in this room with me, but I can certainly alter my own expectations. I can grow thicker skin. I can be willing to redefine what I consider to be a success or failure.

And I can think twice before jumping up and down and shouting for attention. So few are listening anyway; they’re too busy doing the same thing I am. At least, that’s what I think.

12
Oct
2013

Referrals From Unlikely Places

I learned something this week that has humbled me a bit, and I want to share it with you. If you run a business that benefits from client referrals, this one is right up your alley.

Without going into specifics, I recently had a client experience that left me wanting to fire the client once the work was done. Each project was a chore, and they effected my ability to best take care of other clients. I felt that I would be doing everyone a favor by simply asking this client to find another designer to work with.

This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. Sometimes we need to fire clients. Though, the better technique is to learn ahead of time what your ideal client is, and then only take on clients that fit that list of qualities. But, sometimes the need to pay the mortgage outweighs your ideals, so you end up with clients who challenge your skills on many levels. Sometimes, those clients need to politely be let go.

Politeness and professionalism is at the core of all of this. Whether the client meets your qualifications for the perfect client, or you regret agreeing to work with them, each client deserves to be treated professionally. You can decide to no longer work with them on future gigs after the current project ends, but even then you need to communicate that decision in a polite and respectful manner.

Why? Because even though they might be pushing your buttons and challenging your patience, those clients might still love your work. They might, in fact, be raving fans. And raving fans tell other people about you. Give them a bad experience, and they’ll share it with others. But provide professional services consistently, and they just might convince others to hire you as well.

Sure, that new referral might be another one-time gig. But what happened to me is that the new referral was the type of client who goes out and finds other clients for me as part of their job. Rather than having one project for us, these kind of clients could potentially bring in dozens of projects, if not more.

Freelancers can become flustered and have their patience challenged. We’re not perfect, and we can’t expect ideal clients all the time, but how we handle those situations can effect the future of our business. Rudely fire a problem client and you will feel the effects of a vocal, upset business owner. Treat them professionally and you just might empower them to help you out down the road.

14
Aug
2013

Tweaking

I’ve read a lot about habits today. My friend Patrick Rhone wrote about his running habit and the challenges that come with it. Dave and I recorded a new episode of our Home Work podcast and chatted briefly about habits there, too.

Another notion raised today by my friend Isaiah was the idea that even though productivity tools and techniques can save time, many people waste more time than they save by writing, talking and toying with these things. It reminds me of what I was told when we bought an adjustable mattress recently.

We were told that it takes a couple of weeks for our bodies to acclimate to a new setting. Rather than setting a new sleep number each night in an effort to find that magic sweet spot, they recommend waiting a week or more between setting changes. And they were right; I get much better results by allowing myself to get used to each new setting over time.

In the world of productivity, it’s easy to get caught up in methods and tools and the theoretical. Doing so means spending precious time we really should be banking for other, more important tasks. Rather than trying six task management apps over the course of a month or two, I think it’s better to fully commit to one choice, run with it for a very long time, and then review the progress and results.

Tweaking endlessly doesn’t make you faster and more efficient and more productive; tweaking endlessly makes you a tweaker. I’d rather be good at other things, honestly.

6
Aug
2013

A Man Divided

I blog in two places. I run multiple websites covering the many projects that I have live and active on the web. I wear many hats — too many, perhaps — and it’s all starting to take its toll on me.

I feel as though I am struggling through an identity crisis. I design for clients by day, but my extracurricular activities are pulling me apart. Who am I? Am I a freelancing advocate and coach? Am I a fantasy writer? Am I the maker of helpful products? Perhaps I’m all of those things, but doing them all separately, in different places and under different names can’t be helping my crisis of focus and direction.

The reality is simple: I am one man, not many. I’m not a designer and business writer and fantasy author and product designer; I’m just Aaron Mahnke. The things that I create are fragments of my soul, and to keep them separated and segregated into their own corners of the internet is akin to locking away siblings, never to see each other again.

I need a change.

My personal writing needs to be consolidated to one site. My books, tools, products and freebies all need to live there, where my readers can find them with the greatest ease.

Not everything can move, though. Read & Trust is a product of its own, and needs to live at its own unique URL. And my design business will always need to have its own website. But other than those two strands, everything else can be combined.

Those pieces all need to start moving soon. The longer I stand as a man divided, the longer I will suffer this identity crisis and lack of direction. I need to become whole again.

2
Jul
2013

Thoughts on My Social Hiatus

In my own imagination, my absence from social media has been as pronounced as Kiera Knightly’s lower jaw, but in reality I think I’ve barely been missed. No worries, though. I’ve done this before and know what to expect, though it’s been years since my last hiatus. Still, I’m human to dream of being missed, right?

Part of the reason for stepping back this time is that I’m just so busy. Not with busy-work, mind you, but a dramatic expansion of my workload. I have a lot more on my plate these days, and while I like it, it meant taking an inventory of where all of my time is going. It’s like being in an airplane that’s losing altitude. First you toss the empty seats, and then the cargo, and finally the essential supplies. You might even kick the annoying people out, too, but that’s the stuff that only happens in the movies, thankfully.

My evaluation revealed to me just how much of my time was being spent in places like Twitter and App.Net. I couldn’t believe how much of my time I was spending on something as mind-numbing as “checking my stream”. I wrote ‘spending’ but I think what I really meant was ‘wasting’. You can only read so many tweets/posts about RSS services and apps before your eyes bleed and you start to want to become a beet farmer. In the Ukraine.

It’s not always the topics, but the vapid, anger-filled apocalyptic nature of each of them. Everything is the end of the world. Everything is super-bad, or super-good. Everything is the best thing since sliced PSD’s, and everything else is the Devil’s sperm, ready to impregnate our minds and turn us into the worst consumers imaginable if we ever touch the stuff.

Do we really need to panic about how we’re ever going to manage to gather and read all those articles on why Apple is beleaguered or the latest blurry photo of an unknown internal component for the next iPhone? Is iOS 7 (not a public release, but a beta version, mind you) really worth hundreds of designers lining up on either side of the issue like some sort of Dadaist West Side Story, ready to flick open their styli and stab someone? Honestly, it’s not important.

You know what is important? Feeding my kids. Money doesn’t grow on trees, unless those trees are Work Your Ass Off trees and you’re patient enough to give them time to grow and produce fruit. I have to work hard each day to earn my keep in this world, and I’m doing it for a few other human beings I really care for as well. I get an average of seven hours each day at my desk. Less than five minutes is equal to about 1% of my available work time. A half-hour is a massive 7% of my daily income.

So the choice I’ve faced each day is to either spend all of my time doing the work I need to do, or spend most of it doing that stuff, and the rest on things that have no lasting importance whatsoever. This isn’t about being a snob and downplaying the stuff that other people might deem important; this is about perspective, about what will matter in five years or even ten. To me, at least, this is about growing up and being a man.

But listen, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for discussion and community and social interaction. That’s what has made this hiatus so difficult. I miss the people. I miss the conversations. Not all of them or even most of them, but some of them, at least. But I’m not interested in talking and writing about something as asinine as Google Glass and how it’s going to revolutionize the way the top 1% of the wealthiest nation in the world is going to conduct their entitled, abnormally unique lives.

When are we going to talk about something truly important? How many hundreds of hours have been spent just this week criticizing the decisions of companies that, frankly, never asked us and couldn’t possibly care one iota?

The conversation — the Greater Conversation, mind you — needs to elevate. It needs to push us to greater places, inspire us, challenge us to be better and do better and think better. But right now, the Conversation is laying on the bottom shelf in an abandoned 7-Eleven in rural North Dakota, covered in filth and going nowhere.

We have moments, sure, but it’s inconsistent at best. One moment we are waxing philosophical about something deep and full of meaning, and the next we are shoveling yet one more load of fuel into the gaping furnace that is the ego of some sensitive, coddled internet celebrity.

Let’s talk about the things that last. Let’s talk about making lives better around us. Let’s talk about making choices that aren’t about blessing ourselves, but rather about helping others. Let’s talk about the things that would still matter to our great-grandparents, and the things that people will still be talking about when we have grandchildren of our own.

Those conversations are more rare and happen at a much slower pace, though. They don’t eat up our time like fighting over UI changes does. And that will free up time for us to spend on doing our real work and taking care of our families.

I’m sure I offended you, and I sincerely apologize for that. It’s not my goal to belittle anyone reading this, and I fully acknowledge that what is important to one person might not necessarily be important to another. Much of this rant is subjective and open to debate (ironic, I know).

Just understand that you have two choices after reading this: get angry and defensive, or look for the good pieces and find a way to help out in your own small bubble. I’m not 100% right about all of this, so arguing with me about being wrong is pointless. I just want people to be a lot less dismissive than they tend to be. We all owe each other that much, don’t we?

Am I crabby and idealistic? You bet (get off my lawn, while you’re at it). But dammit, we can do better than this, can’t we? Prove it.

21
Jun
2013

Wallflower

You would think that being in my late thirties would find me equipped with amazing insight into who I am and what makes me tick, but I am still learning new things about myself every day. Perhaps I’m just changing periodically at a fundamental level, leaving my mind with the task of catching up and relearning who I am at any given moment. Perhaps I’m just a slow learner. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know I’m still discovering more and more of myself each day.

I am, apparently, a bit of a wallflower. While I’m not sure I would call myself shy, I certainly do stand back and watch the world around me more often than not. When it comes to relationships, this is best seen in how I interact with friends. I tend to be the kind of person who waits for others to interact with me. I’m an introvert and tend to be a loner, though it’s not what I want for myself. And here, I think, is where my lesson awaits me.

I can have periods of time — seasons, if you will — where I feel more and more lonely. I feel forsaken and ignored and unimportant. Many people go through this, so I know I’m not sick or broken in some way, but it doesn’t make it any less dark and painful. Knowing that I have a tendency to withdraw and retreat from time to time, though, does offer me with a possible explanation in those moments when I question my sanity or worth.

Is it definitive? No. Relationships grow and whither all the time, so one explanation can’t cover all the possibilities. But it offers a bit of hope.

Why share this? Because I know others go through this as well. And maybe knowing that there’s something you can do about it — namely, to reach out and make things happen on your own initiation — can offer a stronger feeling of control and hope.

Because sometimes it’s not your fault. And sometimes it is.

31
Jan
2013

Digital Lung

I’m on the edge. I’m on that slender precipice that sits between caring and giving up. I feel like I’m watching my heart evolve from some great height and my priorities are passing away to make room for something new.

I couldn’t care less about the next iPhone or Kickstarter project, to be honest. I have very little interest in the latest game or web service or tool. I know this is mildly hypocritical, as most of my professional life is built upon the world of app, book, blog and service branding. I don’t want that to change, but it’s clear to me that my preferences for how I spend my time are changing.

I used to think I could spend my entire day following tech news, trying to stay caught up on twitter and App.net and following digital rabbit trails. Sometimes I came close, in the moments when I allowed it. But I’m busier now, and as demand for my design work continues to grow, I’ve abandoned my RSS reader in favor of silence and peace. Sometimes I feel like I need to go all the way and disconnect from it all. I feel numb most of the time and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

I honestly do want to tweet and post and write, but I often hold back because I don’t have the mental energy for the conversations that will result. I’m far from being an “Internet celebrity”, but I never want to become That Guy who ignores most of their followers. So I’ve just shut down and gone quiet. I’m numb and tired and most likely a little depressed. So what’s the deal?

There are a few things I know to be true. I know that I desire with every fiber of my being to create things of lasting value and usefulness. App icons, book covers, podcast art and logos for blogs and business all appeal to me because they aren’t “disposable art”. They are, at least in theory, meant to stick around for a very long time. I want the things I create to stick around.

It’s not just digital things, either. The physical tools I create and sell give me great joy. I’m making things that help people do better work. That feels like a lasting contribution to the greater Conversation. Writing fits this urge as well, of course.

All of these activities and endeavors require me to interface with a world that increasingly exhausts me and steals me soul. My challenge, I suppose, is finding a way to exist and work and grow in a world where my creations can make a difference, while maintaining my sanity and finding peace.

I don’t like feeling numb. But I have a suspicion that it’s an instinctive reaction to the demands around me. Some people are going to see this as a “poor-me” post, and maybe I can understand that assumption. But just as coal miners in the 1800′s had to suffer with the effects of their work environment on their bodies, maybe those of us who work online in these digital mines need to accept the hazards of our occupations.

I’ll continue to wrestle with how I can be a genuine human being in the digital space while guarding myself from the pointless hype and angry trolls that seem to be everywhere. I will continue shipping what I feel called to create, and building things for the people around me. But it’s clear that I’m worse for wear by doing it.

My great-great-great grandfather’s time in the mines earned him “black lung”. Perhaps my illness is much the same. I certainly can’t be alone in feeling this way, – there must be others out there who also deal with these experiences.

Perhaps they, like me, suffer from the Digital Lung.

30
Jan
2013

The Game, the Merit and Reality

The Game
I don’t like to play ball. For marketing, that is. I wrote a book a few months ago, and released it to the world. (That’s a scary thing to do, by the way.) Part of publishing a book is the marketing, and if I’m honest, I just don’t like to play the game.

The common route to exposure is pretty much what you would expect it to be. It’s recommended that people like me reach out to the “big names” and ask them to read and possibly recommend my book to their audience. I’ve been told to write guest posts for other websites and popular blogs (not by the owners of those sites and blogs, mind you, but by people who just assume it’s easy to catch the ear of people like that). It’s also been suggested that I should purchase expensive ads and sponsor high-profile podcasts.

It’s all crap.

I’m sorry to be That Guy, but it’s true. Case in point: those “big name” Internet celebrities who have the influence to push my book into the minds of millions? Due to their fame and demands on their schedule, I am simply one of dozens (or even hundreds) of voices each month who they don’t have time for. It’s not their fault, honestly. But the sad reality is that most people who go knocking on their doors never get an answer, let alone the help they hoped to get.

What about those guest posts? First, the Big Sites, the ones you’d love to have your book mentioned on, are simply inundated with requests. Most of those sites have a “submissions” page that’s longer than a vampire erotica novel, and have incredibly tight requirements for all submissions. Requirements such as not shilling your products, which isn’t helpful at all to someone hoping to, well, shill their product.

Ads and sponsorships? Maybe I’m missing something, but paying someone to display a tiny ad on their site, mixed in with a dozen other ads, seems risky. Add to that the fact that most readers of a site that generates regular content never visit the site itself anyway, but rather read new content through an RSS reader, and you begin to see how silly it might be to actually pay money for an ad almost no one will see.

I know this first hand. My book is about freelancing, something I’m damn good at, and enjoying helping others get better at as well. So I thought it would be wise to buy an ad on one of the top freelancing websites on the Internet. This site boasts hundreds of thousands of page views each month. They have huge RSS numbers. And do you know what? Their readers ignore ads. My ad saw, on average, over 12,000 impressions a day, with no clicks. One week netted me nearly 100,000 impressions and just 5 clicks.

Yay.

The Merit
I have this really weird attitude about it all. I believe that, when someone makes something, then ships it and offers it for sale, the better the product, the better it will sell. If it’s gold, people will find it and buy it. If it’s crap, it’s doomed to fail. For some reason, I feel that quality merits reward.

Maybe it’s the old wisdom beaten into me by the elders of my childhood. Hard work pays off. The early bird gets the worm. All that jazz. I have found myself convinced that, because I wrote what I think is a fantastic book, for an enormous audience, with nearly zero barrier to ownership, I deserve success. The book should sell like hotcakes.

Guess what? It’s not. I have to believe that there are more than 250 freelancers in the world. There must be. But that’s how many have purchased my book. Not 250,000. Just a nice round triple-digit 250. That’s it.

So, my merit-based self can only come to one assumption: the book sucks. It’s only earned the results it deserved. This logic is so ingrained in my psyche that I’ve already come to terms with it. My book isn’t good, so I should be happy with the sales I’ve managed to earn so far. I’m literally grateful for my own mediocrity. How pathetic is that?

So what’s next, then? Do I accept the fact that writing books might not be the best use of my time and give up? Should I set aside any dreams I might have of reaching a larger audience and helping more people get better at what they do? I mean, if my book won’t sell, perhaps my knowledge and experience isn’t as exceptional as I’m telling myself. Who am I to profess a wisdom and insight worth selling to others?

Or, do I ignore it all and press on? I have more books to write, more lessons and stories brewing for future topics. Perhaps I could find a way to separate merit from the act of writing and publishing.

Reality
The reality is that writing, although it contributes little toward supporting my family, offers a wonderful release and purpose beyond my day-to-day design work. That said, I sometimes feel like I’m simply playing make-believe, pretending that I’m something I’m not. Some people love what I write. Most, though, don’t know that I (or my books) exist.

It’s both humbling and refreshing. It keeps me firmly grounded in reality. It manages my hopes and expectations. It fills me with that sense of risk and fear that keeps driving me to try new things and ship something that could maybe make a difference.

All I know is that I love to write (even if I’m not good at it), I have a lot to share (even if no one is listening) and I evidently require little incentive to keep trying (even if the numbers are less than encouraging). I’m either stupid, delusional or stubborn. My guess is that it’s all three.

24
Jan
2013

Picky

I’m incredibly picky. I wrestle with this fact daily, trust me.

Psychology tells me that this is most likely rooted in an deep dissatisfaction with myself, something that I project on other people and systems. Perhaps that is true, but there are other reasons.

I firmly believe that there is a certain way everything should be. Take turn signals, for example. Nothing bothers me more while driving than other people who neglect to use their turn signals. Not because they are breaking the law. It irritates me because they are creating a ton of friction for other drivers around them. How can the other cars make decisions about where they are going to go when there are people switching lanes and turning, seemingly at random, without warning?

I used to frequent a local restaurant before a weekly meeting. They failed to open their doors at 6AM nearly every time I went there, even though their hours are clearly printed on their door. They often don’t have the food to make certain items on their menu. The staff has been known to vanish into the back, presumably taking care of other duties, while customers have walked in, waited, and then left in frustration.

When people tell me about their problems — usually business-related but occasionally personal — I have a tendency to talk about processes and systems that can be improved or tweaked to make the frustration go away or at least grow less overwhelming. It’s not that I don’t care. Quite opposite, actually. I care so deeply that I want to offer something more than sympathy. I’m sorry for the troubles they’ve experience, yes. But there are decisions that can be made to repair and remedy those issues—now and in the future.

Am I being too picky? Am I over-critical? Perhaps.

I’d like to think I simply have higher standards for how things should be handled. There is simply too much friction out there, and while I am sure it does not bother most people the same way it does me, I have a feeling all of us have encountered these moments in our own lives. We know how things should work, and when people do it differently, it gums up the system.

Perhaps I don’t need to be such a hyper-critical snob. Perhaps I need to concern myself more with their pain rather than correcting their procedures. I honestly don’t see it that way, though. I see systems and procedures as ways to make things easier, less frustrating and simpler to accomplish. Sympathy might make someone feel better in the moment, but improving a system can make them feel better later, and more consistently.

I’m not sure what my point is. Maybe I think that we should show our care and concern by fixing problems, rather than partnering with people in group rants and toll-fests. Maybe I think we should seek improvement over sympathy. Maybe I believe we should work to remove our friction instead of regretting it.

We have the choice every day to go one way or the other. I just see one option as more productive than the other.

11
Jan
2013

Generic PayPal Payment Pages

I’m a freelance designer, and the vast majority of the payments I receive from clients come through PayPal. The beauty of PayPal is that people can use either a PayPal account, or use a credit card without an account, to pay for my services. Stripe is fantastic as well, but it’s only for credit cards, and sometimes my clients really want to use their PayPal balance to pay me.

In the Olden Days of my freelance work, I would log into PayPal and generate a unique payment link for each invoice. The client would be taken to a page where the invoice amount was already inserted into the form, and they just paid. But as I got busier, it became more and more burdensome to create those invoice-specific links. To that end, I figured out a way to have “one link to rule them all”, a master payment link that was generic and absent of invoice info.

Because I like helping people smooth out the rough parts of their jobs (my newest book, Frictionless Freelancing, is one long exercise in just that), I put together a nice little PDF to guide others through the process of creating these generic payment links. It’s easy if you know where to look, and this PDF will get you there.

7
Nov
2012

The Wrong Name

Ask just about anyone on the street what Christians are all about, and most of it has to do with hate. They hate gays, they hate criminals, they hate alcohol, they hate liberals. Christians, apparently, are better know for what they want to take away from the world than what they want to give. They seem to be more concerned with the notion of leaving this world for Heaven than they are with doing their part to make Here and Now a better place.

(I’m not debating actuality. I’m debating perception. And perception, my friend, is vastly more important.)

Somewhere along the way, christian has come to be equated with judgmental and bigoted, where pietism and otherworldliness is more important than practical generosity, honest caring love and doing the dirty, uncomfortable work required to make sure that everyone has what they need and is truly accepted and loved for who they are, despite their mistakes and baggage.

I have a feeling that a particular 1st century Jewish rabbi would have a difficult time relating to the vast majority of the people today who brand themselves with his name. Anyone with half a brain and a New Testament can quickly discover that this man would have made them very, very nervous. Far from a blond-haired white man in a pale blue bathrobe, Jesus was a barefooted homeless Jew who had the guts to say to the religious status quo of his day, “We can do better.”

He spent time with undesirable people. People that both society and the religious leaders said were to be avoided. He made it clear that no matter what someone had done, no matter how dirty and messed up and different their choices and history might have been, he loved them. He gave the lonely attention; he welcomed the outcast; he fed the hungry; he helped sick people get better.

I don’t want to be associated with a group of people who hate anyone, whether they picket them in public or whisper their hatred quietly in private. I don’t want people to assume that I, too, just can’t wait to get off this rock and leave this “messed up world” behind.

I don’t want to call myself a Christian anymore. It would be deceptive to do that. No, I’m simply a practitioner of a two-thousand year old Jewish sect that believes in making the world a better place. It was founded by a man named Jesus and his teachings were so revolutionary, so countercultural, so anti-religion that his students simply called themselves Followers of the Way.

I don’t want to leave a legacy of assumed hatred and bigotry simply because of a label. I want to leave a legacy of generosity, forgiveness, love and restoration. But for most of my life the people around me have just called me a “christian”. I don’t want the baggage that comes with that name anymore.

Inigo Montoya said it best in The Princess Bride. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Don’t call me a Christian, because I’m not. I believe we can do better than that.

1
Nov
2012

Frictionless Freelancing

I wrote another book.

This one is really close to my heart, if that makes a difference. I’m a freelance graphic designer by day, though I dabble in a few other side projects from time to time. I am proud to admit, though, that I’m a damn good freelancer. Over the years I have had the honor of being asked by many other business owners how I do what I do. So I wrote a book about it.

Frictionless Freelancing is my attempt to teach people how I manage to run a freelance business without most of the problems that freelancers experience. Have you had to deal with clients who won’t pay their invoices, or projects that never seem to end? Those are issues I’ve solved in my business, and I’m a much happier guy for doing so.

The book covers the main areas where friction (anything that clogs up a system or breaks a relationship) tends to creep in and cause frustration for freelancers and small business owners: productivity, finances, clients and personal life. Part attitude adjustment and part guidebook, Frictionless Freelancing is a toolkit for freelancers who want to get better at what they do.

If you’re a fellow business of one, I hope you love it. Go grab your copy of Frictionless Freelancing today!